The 2003 tobacco season in North Carolina has presented several challenging years rolled into one. Growers started the season planting the smallest crop since U.S. Grant smoked cigars in the White House. They began harvesting a light crop about two weeks ago.

“Like a superintendent at one of our research stations said, ‘It’s pretty good considering’…25 inches of rain since the 1st of May,” says David Smith, North Carolina State University tobacco specialist. “Almost every area has some good and some bad. It’s pretty spotty.”

An escorted caravan of about 50 vehicles wound up a tour of North Carolina tobacco farms and research stations today. They saw some good and some bad.

Rouse Ivey’s farm in eastern North Carolina provides an example of the condition of the crop across North Carolina. “I’ve got some tobacco that was sand-drowned and I’ve got some of the best tobacco I’ve ever made,” said Ivey, who farms with his son John Daniel in Duplin County.

While one field got 7 inches or 8 inches of rain, another just down the road about a mile or two received only 2 inches. That’s largely been the difference between how a particular farmer’s crop looks.

“It’s been tough to manage,” says 72-year-old Joe Lanier of Duplin County, who farms with his son Major. “It’s been a lot of extra work and a lot of extra nitrogen.”

Just over the road in Jones County, Clifton Brown “missed some of the rain” and had one of the best fields of tobacco the tour visited on Tuesday.

Intermittent breaks in the rain have given the tobacco a chance to grow, but it’s still a mixed bag, Smith says. He’s estimating an average yield of about 2,000 pounds per acre. Normally, the average is around 2,200. In the Piedmont region of the state, the flue-cured crop is late. Continued rains would help out that part of the state.

“Most of our problems this year have been weather related,” Smith says. Target spot, Granville wilt and blackshank have come on late and provided additional stress to the crop. The expected onslaught of tomato spotted wilt virus didn’t materialize this year after hitting flue-cured country hard last season.

As expected with the excessive rain, there have been a lot of nutrient problems. “A month ago, the questions we were getting involved nutrients and the answer to all of them was, ‘yes’ go ahead and apply nutrients,” Smith says.

“Now, we’re encouraging farmers to harvest in a timely manner,” Smith says. “Give what leaves remain a chance to get ripe.

“There will be some mighty thin tobacco this year,” Smith says.

e-mail: cyancy@primediabusiness.com